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Feminism

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10.4324/9780415249126-N022-1
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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 27, 2021, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/feminism/v-1

2. Renaissance and early-modern forerunners

Although female inferiority is the dominant note that sounds through the Western philosophical tradition, its character was never a matter of consensus. Long drawn out theological debates about whether woman is a human being, whether she is made in the image of God, whether she is a perfect creation of God or an imperfect version of man, and whether men and women are equal before God, all appeal to classical authorities, to the Bible and to the Church Fathers, and rumble on through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Complementing them are a series of more secular discussions, of which one of the most consistent focuses on women’s learning. In her Livre de la cité des dames (1405) Christine de Pizan extols the advantages of educating women, a theme subsequently taken up by Renaissance writers for whom it played a part in the so-called Querelle des Femmes – a sequence of philosophically repetitive, interwoven disputes about whether fidelity in marriage should be demanded of both sexes, whether and to what extent women should be educated, and whether women were entitled to the respect and gratitude of men for the services they rendered them. On one side of these debates, women’s inferiority was reasserted by appeal to example, authority and reason. On the other, their superiority was defended in a variety of genres. Some writers – for example Cornelius Agrippa – employed the rhetorical device of the paradoxical encomium, attempting to entertain and impress by ingeniously reversing conventional evaluations of men and women (see Agrippa von Nettesheim). Others drew on a well-tried stock of cases to illustrate women’s superior virtue, intelligence or judiciousness. The choice of these genres contributes to the impression that, while these champions of women sometimes propose certain social reforms, they are on the whole anxious not to unsettle the status quo. Their aim is to entertain – to tease men and flatter women, and perhaps in doing so to make both reconsider their roles – rather than to foment social change.

Traces of this style endured well into the seventeenth century and are visible even in writers who in other ways broke with the terms of the querelle. A particularly striking change is the move away from debates about the relative inferiority or superiority of women, to works purporting to show that the sexes are equal. Marie de Gournay, who claimed that she was the first to take this view, published her Égalité des hommes et des femmes in 1622, and the same theme was taken up with a new determination later in the century. In France, Poulain de la Barre adopted a fresh approach when he appealed to Cartesian scientific method: a clear and distinct understanding of the issue can be arrived at, he insists, by rational demonstration. Although his De l’égalité des deux sexes (1673) sometimes lapses into the older style of argument – women are more decorous and discreet than men, women’s work is more valuable than that of men, and so on – Poulain is remarkable for the forthright manner with which he asserts that the relations between mind and body and the capacities of the mind are the same in both sexes, and even more for the consequences he draws from this claim. There is no reason, in his view, why women should not occupy all the public roles currently held by men. Since they are capable of equalling men in understanding all the sciences (including both civil and canon law) they could, if educated, teach in the universities, be legislators, rulers, generals of armies, judges and – most radical of all – preachers and ministers of the Church.

Poulain’s willingness to contemplate such dramatic social change is unusual, but less so is his emphasis on intellectual equality and downplaying of the significance of the bodily differences between men and women. This is shared by a number of women writing in the second half of the seventeenth century, who criticize men for depriving them of learning and education, and imply that women are quite capable of ruling themselves, and indeed men. In the Netherlands, Anna Maria von Schurman writes in favour of the education of girls. In England, women such as Margaret Cavendish and Mary Astell are by turns bitter and witty in their undermining of women’s subjection to men.

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Citing this article:
James, Susan. Renaissance and early-modern forerunners. Feminism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/feminism/v-1/sections/renaissance-and-early-modern-forerunners.
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